The Coalition’s foreign policy track record has been mixed at best; at worst it has resulted in a loss of British influence globally, an Embassy survey of ambassadors, foreign policy experts and MPs concluded.
In his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Easter Banquet, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain remained “engaged” globally despite austerity, but many observers disagree.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s “disinclination to take on a global role” was a drawback, former British Ambassador to UN Sir Jeremy Greenstock told Embassy.
Lack of resources, reduced armed forces were other factors listed by diplomats.
In his speech, Hammond pointed to success of Britain’s commercial diplomacy, but Mike Gapes MP, Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, felt this emphasis verged on “mercantilist” foreign policy.
Viewed from afar, a former Ambassador to London said foreign policy differences in the Coalition government and less interest in multilateral diplomacy had not served Britain well.
Loss of influence has been felt most acutely in Europe, as one EU Ambassador serving in London put it: “Uncertainty about UK’s future inside or outside the EU has been a factor.”
Former UK Ambassador Sir Brian Barder listed a catalogue of policy failures in Europe. Among others, the threat of an in-out referendum, “promised for reasons of party management, not a calculation of national interest” had resulted in “virtual isolation” in Europe.
Added to that was Britain’s “noisy opposition” to the candidate for president of the EU Council and the “doomed” attempt to undermine EU principle of freedom of movement.
The “special relationship” with the US remained strong, but European partners worry about Britain’s “uncritical support” of US positions.
Taking a back seat in Russia-Ukraine talks revealed Britain’s lack of involvement in “front-line” diplomacy, added Sir Jeremy. Others, such as Robin Niblett of Chatham House, felt German Chancellor Angela Merkel, given her background, was better placed to conduct talks.
British foreign policy in the Middle East was also muddled. Respondents pointed to the failed intervention in Libya “disregarding the limitations of the UN mandate” followed by a failure to secure Parliamentary approval for strikes in Syria.
But in the emerging world, which Hammond said had been a foreign policy priority for the Coalition government, Britain’s standing has improved. African diplomats praised the ringfencing of the aid budget and Britain’s constructive role in Somalia and Sierra Leone.
Apart from the running sore with Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas, engagement in Latin America was paying off, and Asian diplomats said British influence in their region was on the rise.
But Britain had “shot itself in the foot” with visa policies, warned Alan Charlton, former UK Ambassador to Brazil. “This created the impression the UK is closed for foreign students, especially in India. This has eroded our advantage over competitors. This must change,” he said.